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Italy goes in search of new political order

What on earth is a bicamerale? Most Italians wouldn't be able to tell you beyond the fact that it has been the subject of fierce political debate and has something to do with the constitution.

In fact, the bicamerale - a special commission of both houses of parliament charged with changing the way Italy is governed - may well be the most significant political creation for 50 years.

It has been clear for a long time that Italy is ungovernable under present arrangements and that something has to be done to stabilise and simplify the system. But up until now the various factions, parties, shifting alliances and 55 post-war governments have been unable to agree on how to do it.

The breakthrough is largely due to Massimo D'Alema, leader of the left- wing PDS party and chief tactical brain behind Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition government. His coup has been to woo the leader of the opposition, the media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with an irresistible offer: the chance to put all his judicial and business problems on hold and resuscitate his flagging political career.

In exchange for making up the two-thirds majority necessary to bring the bicamerale into existence, Mr Berlusconi will not now have to worry about having one or more of his television channels taken away by the Constitutional Court. Nor are his various trials for political corruption and business malpractice likely to have repercussions in parliament, as they could so easily have done.

Yesterday, the bicamerale was approved by the Senate and next week it should breeze through the lower house. It will have five months to make its recommendations. Proposals are likely to include a strengthening of the power of the Prime Minister, a rethink of the electoral system, and a redefinition of the work of parliament to avoid duplication by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.